[Some people might be wondering why a Christian arts organization is conducting a survey to determine how Christians and non-Christians perceive mainstream Christian art. This article should explain our thinking. Oh, and, if you haven’t already, you should take that 2-question quick and easy survey.]
Last night, I watched the movie God’s Not Dead, and it was a little better than I was expecting. Sure, it had many of the problems most Christian movies have: an “emotional” score that undercuts actual emotion, underwhelming “celebrity” appearances, poor to middling acting throughout, bad writing at times, and an acceptable but unremarkable degree of overall technical craft. But it was also actually moving at times (when the music got out of the way), only intermittently preachy, and semi-occasionally believably written (i.e., some of the dialogue actually sounded like someone could have said it in real life).
Most unbelieving critics have much the same perspective. Here’s an excerpt from an average review by Teddy Durgin from Screen It:
Clunky in spots? Yes. Preachy throughout? Lord, yes. Compelling to those who know what they are paying for? Without a doubt.
In other words: unbelievers won’t like it, but believers will find it compelling. Which makes a whole lot of sense out of this screenshot I took from Rotten Tomatoes:
Notice anything? It’s something you’ll see over and over again if you look at professional reviews of Christian films: critics hate them, but audiences love them. That trend actually holds for most Christian art. Professional critics hate it. Mainstream Christians overwhelmingly support it.
And, if you talk to a lot of Christians in the film industry, they’ll say that the audiences who go to see Christian movies are generally Christians, so they love the movies for being Christian. And the critics who review the movies are mostly non-Christians, so they hate the movies for being Christian. In other words, the praise and the hate for Christian art is ideologically motivated.
For instance, Kevin Sorbo, who played the prerequisite angry-atheist-turned-deathbed-convert (not-really-a-spoiler-if-you’ve-ever-seen-a-Christian-movie-before alert) in God’s Not Dead, had this to say in an interview with Fox:
There’s so much bashing going on in the media and world for people who believe in God. . . . There’s so much anger in Hollywood. . . . They don’t like the truth, they’d rather be lied to and they just attack anybody who doesn’t agree their way. . . . Yet they scream for tolerance and they scream for freedom of speech but only if it’s their way. I don’t begrudge them their beliefs, why do they begrudge mine?
So that 17% rotten score on Rotten Tomatoes is probably another example of unbelievers bashing on us Christians for our beliefs, right? Not so much.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t doubt at all that there actually is persecution of Christians all over the place. Oddly enough, I actually did experience persecution for my Christianity in a college philosophy class. I was told I was not allowed to use the Bible as an authoritative source in a philosophy paper. I did anyway. I got an unfair grade on the paper (a C), but I still got a B in the class because I aced the exams. And that was generally my experience in college and otherwise. If my work was undeniably good, I didn’t experience anything more serious than public ridicule for my Christian beliefs, which, as Jesus implies (Matt. 5:39), is eminently bearable.1
Even if unbelievers do relish giving Christian art scathing reviews, the sad fact is that they don’t have to bear false witness to do so.
But the case with Christian art is not really persecution. I honestly do not believe that the critics are wrong about Christian movies in general or God’s Not Dead in particular. Nor do I think the unbelievers’ criticism of Christian art needs to be ideologically motivated. Even if unbelievers do relish giving Christian art scathing reviews, the sad fact is that they don’t have to bear false witness to do so. And, contrary to the narrative being spun by mediocre Christian artists, unbelieving professional critics actually do have love for many pieces of good art made by Christians.
For instance, in the same school where I was singled out in class and publicly ridiculed for believing in a historical Noah’s Ark, they had classes where Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment was required reading. I’ve never heard of a single unbelieving art critic, no matter how vociferously he may have decried God and His followers, who would deny the absolute genius of Bach. And the same critics who hated God’s Not Dead praise Ben Hur:
It’s easy (and natural) to defend the mediocrity of our creations by deflecting criticisms as close-minded persecution. But that’s simply not true in many cases. If in some future time, we make music like Bach, novels like Dostoevsky, poetry like Gerard Manley Hopkins, visual art like Dürer, and movies like no one ever has before, then perhaps we can talk about persecution if the critics still bash us. But they won’t.
Do you realize what a profound loss mediocre Christian art is to our efforts at evangelism? Think about it. The only people who like contemporary Christian movies, music, novels, etc. are Christians. Do these Christians need to pray the Sinner’s Prayer again? Do they need to be convinced of the existence of God? No. They’re already saved.
And non-Christians don’t even notice Christian art unless they are coerced by friends or required to for their jobs as reviewers. And do the insipid altar calls of Christian art have any impact on these few non-Christians? Not really. Christian art might actually be serving to further entrench their unbelieving commitments.
So if Christians don’t need our art, and non-Christians won’t even look at it, what is our art currently accomplishing for the Gospel? Nothing.
So if Christians don’t need contemporary Christian art, and non-Christians won’t even look at it, what is our art currently accomplishing for the Gospel? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. It’s tasteless salt (Luke 14:34f).
Christian artists should be doing one of two things:
1. Producing art that conveys the Gospel call with such craft and skill that unbelievers want to receive it even when they hate the message (see: Lecrae).
2. Ministering to the church by actually dealing with the real struggles and real joys that already-saved people actually have (see: Dostoevsky).
If we made better art, unbelievers would actually pay attention to it. They already do pay attention to good Christian art from generations past. But, please tell me: Why isn’t the church making art like that anymore?
- The class was “Logical Positivism and Pragmatist Epistemology” at Georgia Tech, if you were curious. My final paper, playing off of Bertrand Russell’s famous anti-theistic piece, was entitled “Why I am Not a Pragmatist.” ↩